Tag Archives: Melody

Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.


Filed under Arrangement, Lyrics, Melody, Structure

Don’t Look Back In Anger: Why The Best Stuff Is Old

Paolo Nutini's Sunny Side Up (2009)

“It was in love I was created
And in love is how I hope I die”

Coming Up Easy – Paolo Nutini

Paolo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up has been whipping around my iPod for the whole Christmas holiday. It’s a barnstormer; Nutini completely does away with the pillock-pop of his over-produced first album and just tears the studio apart.

It’s written about his time touring, and it would be a spectacularly narrow album were it not for his musical eclecticism. He samples a huge variety of genres, from swing blues (Pencil Full of Lead), to scottish folk (Chamber Music) to first-wave ska (10/10). But he doesn’t just try to imitate them; he gives them all the Nutini treatment, ramps up the energy levels, and commits them to disc.

But why bother sampling all these different genres? Surely, great artists can pull brilliant new arrangements out of the air? Surely, they’d just be suddenly inspired, jump out of the bath, and run naked down the street clutching a new chord progression?

Oh, no. Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal. The reason that it’s such a good idea to nick what’s gone before is that it works. You wouldn’t launch a product without market research, would you?

Bob Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie. The Rolling Stones stole from Chuck Berry. And those guys were working in times when music was expensive. We’re the lucky generation. We’ve got Spotify, iTunes, YouTube… an almost limitless supply of free/cheap music at our disposal, going right back to the 1910’s. So why would you stick in the noughties?

I know that plucking random artists out of the air can be a thankless task, so I’ll show you what I use to get ideas from the past. http://www.allmusic.com/ is a tremendously under-used service. It’s the Wikipedia of music, with detailed reviews of artists, albums, and songs. But here’s the clever bit. Say you use the genre bar on the homepage, and go into Rap. You can then click on, say, Jazz-Rap (which is awesome, by the way) and you get a detailed biography of what the Jazz-Rap movement was all about.

Then, you click on Top Artists. This is the cool bit. Not only do you get a detailed list of everyone who’s ever made Jazz-Rap, but you get a ranking of how representative they are of this genre. Perfick.

So, next time you’re stuck for ideas, head over to allmusic.com, put on your musical balaclava, and get ready to rob!

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Filed under Arrangement, Melody, Structure

Fly Me To The Melody: How Chords Work

A stylishly rumpled Ol' Blue Eyes.

“Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars

Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words) – Bart Howard

TUNE! I dare you to listen to the Frank Sinatra version without clicking your fingers. For the uninitiated, it’s a rip roaring Bossa Nova Wedding Disco extravaganza, with a whole wodge of Great Gatsby swing in its tail. It’s a corker.

And it doesn’t age. Written in 1954, it still sounds like it’s flowing off the pen of a Broadway hitmaker. How does it do this? What’s the magic elixir?

It’s the melody. One of the best I’ve come across, actually. It flows like a river, all full of accidentals, tiny little steps, perfectly placed leaps, and a chord progression that’ll knock your socks off.

Here we go:

| Cm7 | Fm7 | Bb7 | Ebmaj7 || Ab | Dm7b5 | G9 | Cm7 |

Ohhh yes. Those bewildered by music theory, please come out from behind your desk chairs. I shall now endeavour to explain this big ol’ mess.

1. Focal Points

The melody’s beautifully simple if you imagine it like this: you’ve got a wooden block that’s six notes long. The melody tracks from one end to the other, and then goes back up. You start it at the top of the scale (Eb-Ab), and after each half-a-line you move it down one note. So, it goes like this:

Fly (Eb) me to the moon (Ab)
And let me play (D) among those stars (G)
Let (C) me see what spring (F) is like
On Ju-(B)-piter and Mars (Eb)

How utterly perfect! You’ve moved your 6-note woodblock down 4 notes and you’ve made it back to the root! Doesn’t it make you smile? These notes I’ve drawn onto the lyrics are what I’m gonna call the Focal Points of the melody, and as we can see, they move in a wonderfully structured order in this song.

So, use this idea of the woodblock in your travels. Doesn’t have to be six notes long, it can be as many or as little as you want, but it will really benefit your writing.

2. VI’s and V’s

Have a look at that chord sequence up top. Notice anything? No? Well, I’ll tell ya.

Chords are creatures of habit. They’re used to moving in cadences (harmonic transitions), and they don’t take kindly to small jumps. Happily, this progression is jammed full of 4th and 5th cadences. It’s got swing, momentum, and just sounds right.

It’s a strange phenomenon, and someday some wiry-haired academic will churn out a dissertation on it. For now, though, let’s just marvel at the phenomenon of cadences and use as many 4th and 5th’s as is humanly possible.

3, Accidentals in Chords

The super-nerds among you will have noticed the apparent mistake in the ‘Focal Points’ section and will be eagerly hovering your mouse above the comments section like a digital vulture. For the normo’s: can you spot it?

Yes, that’s right, I did mean to put (B) instead of (Bb). It’s an accidental (a note not normally in the scale) that rides beautifully over its corresponding chord: G9.

See, accidentals are what make a melody stand out. Think about Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’. (“Very Far… Very Far…”) It’s all very well sticking to the regulation Doh-Ray-Me scale, but a real showstopper melody has to have a few accidentals.

But how do you get them in? Well, if you’re using the woodblock idea to get a melody on the road, then stick one of the focal points on an accidental. It’ll sound gorgeous.


Filed under Arrangement, Melody